Renovation is in progress at 399 Park Avenue, located between East 53rd and East 54th streets, formerly known as the Citigroup Building. The 1.7-million-square-foot office structure served as the Citigroup headquarters from its 1961 completion until last year. Boston Properties Inc. enlisted Gensler to upgrade interiors and the mechanical systems, introduce rooftop landscaping, and refurbish the exterior. The history and aesthetic of the building, designed by the architecture firm of Kahn & Jacobs, is intertwined with mid-20th-century development of the International style and its influence on the corporate world.
The site is noted for its early contribution to high-rise development in Midtown. In 1911, 12-story 383 Park Avenue, designed by architect Albert Joseph Bodker in then-popular Neo-Gothic style, became one of the first luxury residential high-rises of the type that continues to define much of the avenue. By the 1920’s, a 13-story, Beaux Arts-style building , and a 15-story, Medieval-styled high-rise flanked the structure to the north and south, respectively. The luxury stretch fell on hard times during the Great Depression, when 383 Park Avenue lost its ornate dormers and the townhouse block across the street to the west was leveled.
After World War II, Park Avenue between East 60th Street and Grand Central Terminal, which provided convenient suburban access, emerged as the city’s prime commercial address. During this time, companies embraced the sleek, minimalist aesthetic of the International style, which became synonymous with corporate success.
Architect Ely Jacques Kahn’s earliest work, which dates to 1917, utilizes traditional styles. The architect’s design sensibility gradually shifted to pared-down modernism by 1940, by which time he took part in designing over 40 high-rise buildings, many in tandem with architect Albert Buchman. In that year Kahn partnered with Robert Allan Jacobs, younger by 21 years and a onetime protégé of modernist pioneer Le Corbusier.
Kahn & Jacobs introduced corporate modernism to Park Avenue in 1947, when the 22-story Universal Pictures Building was completed at 445 Park Avenue. The vertical metal mullions of the firm’s 36-story 100 Park Avenue South, built two years later between East 40th and East 41st streets, set a template that defined corporate style for the next three decades.
By the start of the 1960s, modernist office buildings lined the Midtown stretch of Park Avenue. Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Bloise of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill introduced the city’s first all-glass façade at the 22-story Lever House, built at the northwest corner of Park Avenue and East 53rd Street in 1951. Kahn & Jacobs served as associate architects at the Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson and completed at the southwest corner in 1957. The large plaza in front of the tower was the first of its kind. The two buildings were very well-received and transformed the intersection into the focal point of modern architecture.
Development at the intersection’s northeast corner began in 1953, when businessman and philanthropist William Vincent Astor began to assemble a full-block property between Lexington and Park avenues and East 53rd and East 54th streets. The 46-story Astor Plaza was revealed in April 1955, a month after the permit was issued for the Seagram Building. The proposed tower would sit atop a low-rise podium, following a then-popular template. The sunken plaza at Park Avenue and East 53rd Street corner aligned with the proposed Seagram Building plaza. The rooftop would feature a helipad.
Financial complications and property holdouts stalled the project, which the First National City Bank of New York — the nation’s largest — took over with plans to build a new headquarters. The bank successfully persuaded remaining holdouts to vacate the block.
The new design team consisted of Kahn & Jacobs, which was finishing work on the 30-story 425 Park Avenue a block north, and the recently-formed firm of Carson, Ludlin, and Shaw. Robert Carson and Earl Ludlin took part in designing Rockefeller Center in the 1930s, and became its senior project architects after Raymond Hood’s departure in 1938. Arwin Shaw III, a veteran of the United Nations complex design team, joined the partnership in 1957, in time to start work on the Park Avenue project.
The redesign eliminated its predecessor’s exposed elevator core and the corner plaza (coincidentally, both elements feature in the 48-story, 1.7-million-square-foot 245 Park Avenue, built seven blocks south in 1967). Wide, limestone-clad columns express internal structure and frame thin aluminum mullions, superimposed upon floor-to-ceiling windows and dark brown spandrels.
To accommodate the bank’s need for large floors, the full-block podium was extended to 12 stories, rising almost one-third of the building height. Vertical elements create upward thrust that balances the stalwart composition.
Upon its 1961 completion, the 525-foot-tall 399 Park Avenue ranked as the world’s 55th tallest skyscraper when measured to roof height, and the 10th tallest building erected after World War II. Its floor area eclipses that of the Seagram Building by over a million square feet, and holds over six times more office space than Lever House.
Author Ayn Rand, who interned with Ely Jacques Kahn while conducting research for her novel The Fountainhead in 1937, described the architect as “modern – within careful limits.”
Accordingly, Kahn’s design for 399 Park Avenue defers to its context, with the roofline rising only 10 feet above the Seagram Building.
The podium creates visual enclosure for the Seagram plaza, and a sidewalk widening at the southwest corner integrates the plaza with the street wall to the north. The corner space extends through base of the tower, which aligns with the Park Avenue canyon. The open-air arcade that echoes the colonnaded ground floor space at the Lever House across the street.
Columns clad in beige limestone represent stylistic progression of Carson, Ludlin and Wallace K. Harrison’s 75 Rockefeller Plaza and its pared-down Art Deco mullions, as well as the horizontal bands of Kahn & Jacobs’ Universal Pictures Building. In 1947, the two buildings became the city’s first postwar office high-rises.
The stone pays homage to Park Avenue’s pre-war building stock, particularly the Racquet and Tennis Club, designed by McKim, Mead, and White and erected at the intersection’s southwest corner in 1916.
On the other side of the block, 399 Park Avenue’s mid-rise podium originally matched the building scale along Lexington Avenue. Today, its deep setback provides light and view corridors within a dense skyscraper cluster.
The Citicorp Center was built across Lexington Avenue in 1977 as an annex to the headquarters at 399 Park Avenue. The iconic 917-foot-tall tower, currently known as 601 Lexington Avenue, was designated an official city landmark last December.
Lever House and the Seagram Building were designated as landmarks in 1982 and 1988, respectively. In contrast to its innovative neighbors to the east, west, and south, 399 Park Avenue embodies a vernacular approach to a corporate style that values modernity, conformity and efficiency. The similarly-styled Time & Life Building, built at 1271 Avenue of the Americas in 1958, served as the setting for the television series Mad Men, which explores the corporate world of that period.
Office buildings of the period are rapidly becoming outdated both in terms of style and function. The Time & Life Building is currently being renovated. In 2001, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill fully refurbished the deteriorating façade of the Lever House, and the renovated landmark maintains its original appearance.
However, dramatic alterations transformed a number of Kahn & Jacobs buildings over the past 15 years, such as 100 Park Avenue South, the Hippodrome Building (1120 Sixth Avenue, 1952), the Sperry & Hutchinson Building (330 Madison Avenue, 1964), and 1095 Sixth Avenue, completed in 1974 as the firm’s last major commission. One Astor Plaza (1515 Broadway, 1972), the Astor family’s encore to the failed plans for 399 Park Avenue and also designed by Kahn & Jacobs, narrowly escaped a similar fate in 2007. Renovations are in progress at 20 Broad Street (1956) and 110 East 60th Street (1962).
The transformation of 425 Park Avenue into a 893-foot-tall tower designed by Foster & Partners, extensively covered last year by YIMBY, eliminated half of the building’s height and stripped it to a steel skeleton.
The First National City Bank of New York, known as Citibank since 1976, originally moved to Midtown at a time when major corporations were leaving Lower Manhattan en masse. Today the trend is shifting once again, as Park Avenue’s aging commercial stock faces stiff competition from new properties rising elsewhere in the city. After 55 years at 399 Park Avenue, Citigroup moved its headquarters back downtown to 388 Greenwich Street last year.
In 2002, Boston Properties acquired 399 Park Avenue for $1.06 billion, or $630 per square foot, the highest rate in the Manhattan office market at the time. After losing its anchor tenant, Boston Properties opted to upgrade the property. Gensler, noted for revitalizing aging commercial spaces such as One SoHo Square, treats the original design with greater deference than most of the Kahn & Jacobs restorations listed earlier.
In his 1997 book New York 1960. Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial, architect and author Robert A.M. Stern described 399 Park Avenue as “dull.” Gensler replaces the weathered, dark brown window spandrels and limestone mullions with sleek, light-gray metal panels that echo the Citicorp Center across Lexington Avenue. A new entrance canopy, renovated storefronts, and street pavers revitalize the building’s street presence. Terraces at the sixth and 12th floor setbacks, marketed as an “oasis in the sky,” convert formerly unused rooftops into sprawling landscaped spaces for tenant use. New, glass-clad “multi-purpose rooms” integrate the terraces with renovated interiors.
The renovation joins a series of nearby projects that echo the modernist aesthetic. The minimalist, 1,398-foot-tall 432 Park Avenue, which towers two blocks north, is partially complete. 100 East 53rd Street, a 63-story residential building designed by Foster + Partners in a modernist revival style, nears completion across the street to the south, next door to the Seagram Building. Meanwhile, the plaza and lower levels at 601 Lexington Avenue are being renovated.
The latest development wave heralds greater changes in the near future. A comprehensive East Midtown rezoning proposal seeks to encourage developers to introduce the latest generation of commercial space through greater density, enabled through the East Side Access project, which will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal.